Barnard College Vice President On Climbing to the Executive Level in Your Career

Gabrielle Simpson never had a black professor in college. Now, through her work as vice president and head of Communications at Barnard College, Simpson’ s life’s mission is to positively contribute to the lives and careers of the next generation of diverse leaders. In an interview, she outlines what it takes for women to step into an executive position.

Black Enterprise: Explain your role at Barnard College.

Simpson: At Barnard, I lead the communications department, which strengthens how the college conveys its significance and impact to teaching and scholarship.

My team includes news and strategic communications, events, special projects, creative, government relations, digital and video, marketing, and executive communications, editorial and media relations. Working with them, I look for unique opportunities to promote the great work of our faculty, staff, students, and alumnae. There are so many phenomenal stories to tell about faculty, alumnae, students, scholarship, and research, and my team helps to showcase these across channels in a myriad of evolving and innovative ways. As head of communications, I strategically elevate these exceptional accomplishments.

A recent study from the Harvard Business Review finds that women are more likely to volunteer for assignments that benefit the organization, but that has very little impact on their advancement at a company. Can you share the assignments or experiences that had an impact on your preparation for an executive level position?

As an intern at ABC’s Live with Regis and Kelly in 2007, I was the first person in and the last one to leave—as all interns should be. Though it was intimidating, I would share suggestions and ideas with show producers. It was important for me to make my presence known. I tried my best to go above and beyond. When college graduation was near, I was offered a production assistant role. This taught me early on that you have to put yourself out there. We often have to be our own publicist, manager, and agent. Having ABC on my résumé helped me to land a role at CBS.

While I was a communications associate at CBS Corp., I shared my interest in diversity and inclusion with my supervisor. He then empowered me to meet with the Chief Diversity Officer, Josie Thomas. We clicked, and she understood my genuine interest in diversity and inclusion. I eventually helped to execute corporate diversity communications across the company’s diverse portfolio and helped to create an award-winning newsletter for CBS. I was later promoted and asked to be a charter member of CBS’ first-ever, corporatewide diversity council. I attended signature national events and conferences representing the corporate communications office, as well as the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. This placed me on the diversity and inclusion radar, and eventually, I was recruited by Comcast NBCUniversal, where I led corporate diversity communications on behalf of NBCUniversal.

At Barnard, I’m able to bring my broadcast and multimedia perspective to the college. My experience of teaching since high school and currently at the collegiate level positively impacted my current role as well.

What are some ways you can add value to the workplace?

We should all strive to add value in the workplace with both “performance currency,” and “relationship currency.” Performance currency is generated by you going above and beyond what’s asked and expected of you. Relationship currency is generated by the investments that you make in people around you—being the go-to, trusted person on a project or job. Strong relationship currency can lead to sponsorship, promotions, and financial increases. Together, performance and relationship currency influence your position in an organization. You must overperform to be noticed. People rise in their careers because of what they do and who knows that they do it. Success is always dependent not just on you, but on others.

Communication is critical to advancing in your career. What tips would you share for women who are afraid to speak up in fear of sounding incompetent, being interrupted, or shot down for their opinion?

If you’re prepared and do your research, your competence will be recognized. As women, we cannot afford to be unprepared. We have to stay ready, so we’ll never have to get ready. Preparation is key to gaining confidence.

Additionally, closed mouths don’t get fed. There is tremendous value in asking insightful questions and sparking thoughtful conversations. If you do not speak up, if you do not contribute to significant conversations, your value won’t be seen. It’s imperative to make your presence and value known. Sometimes it’s about asking smart questions and being brave enough to get the conversation going.

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